Governing: “Growing America: Demographics and Destiny”

Planetizen is a reliable collector of fascinating articles on urban planning and design. This week they pointed us to this article in Governing by Joel Kotkin. Some excerpts:

Growing America: Demographics and Destiny

Over the next four decades, American governments will oversee a much larger and far more diverse population. As we gain upward of 100 million people, America will inevitably become a more complex, crowded and competitive place, but it will continue to remain highly dependent on its people’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit…

Americans…prefer to live in decentralized environments. There are more than 65,000 general-purpose governments; the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200–small enough that nonprofessional politicians can have a serious impact on local issues. This contrasts with the vast preference among academic planners, policy gurus and the national media for larger government units as the best way to regulate and plan for the future.

Short of a draconian expansion of federal power, this dispersion is likely to continue. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of all metropolitan growth in the last decade took place on the periphery; at the same time, the patterns of domestic migration have seen a shift away from the biggest cities and toward smaller ones. As Joel Garreau noted in his classic Edge City, “planners drool” over high-density development, but most residents in suburbia “hate a lot of this stuff.” They might enjoy a town center, a paseo or a walking district, but they usually resent the proliferation of high-rises or condo complexes. If they wanted to live in buildings like them, they would have stayed in the city.

…As one planning director in a well-to-do suburban Maryland county put it, “Smart growth is something people want. They just don’t want it in their own neighborhood.”

The great long-term spur to successful dispersion will come from technology, as James Martin first saw in his pioneering 1978 book, The Wired Society. A former software designer for IBM, Martin foresaw the emergence of mass telecommunications that would allow a massive reduction in commuting, greater deconcentration of workplaces and a “localization of physical activities…centered in local communities.”

…Simultaneously the Internet’s rise allows every business–indeed every family–unprecedented access to information, something that militates against centralized power. Given Internet access, many lay people aren’t easily intimidated into accepting the ability of “experts” to dictate solutions based on exclusive knowledge since the hoi polloi now possess the ability to gather and analyze information…

Click for the full article

See also:

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Cities tend to be complex organisms, Scott observes, so planners are constantly tempted to try to simplify their task:

Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost… (p.141-142)

In Northampton, the simplification du jour appears to be a drive to segregate our open space to the periphery, while weakening greenspace preservation in the more urban districts where it is already scarce.

Smart Growth: When Polls and Reality Diverge
It is common knowledge among pollsters that what people say may differ from what they do. This is particularly the case when a question has a “politically correct” answer (see “spiral of silence”).

In the case of Smart Growth, survey results might lead planners to misperceive how people want to live and commute. Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren at the Cato Institute provide an example:

Consider the survey results published by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only six percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in rural areas; the second largest group, 27 percent, preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think the Clinton/Gore campaign to promote “livable communities” (densely developed communities) would be resisted by a majority.

But the survey went on to ask, “where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city.” Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, “Would you be interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no…

Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote mass transit, and 70 percent or so will respond yes. Ask those same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if it were more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond no.

…The Sustainable Northampton initiative conducted its own survey in 2006. It found that 54% agreed that “New Homes Should Be Built in Walking Distance of Commercial Areas”. It also found that 89% agreed that “Development Should Be Encouraged At Densities And Locations That Can Support Transit”. In light of the foregoing, it would be wise not to infer that most people will actually buy homes based on these criteria.

It is also entirely possible that many respondents were not fully aware of the tradeoffs involved in densification, in particular, the potential loss of urban greenspace. In the same Northampton survey, 90% agreed that “We Should Protect More Open Space & Wildlife Corridors”.

Planners must take into account how people will actually act when they make major life decisions for themselves as individuals. It is risky to rely on mere words and abstract propositions, especially when the “correct” answer is well known.

Suburban ‘Raise the Drawbridge’ Sentiment Motivates Some Smart Growth Policies
In 1998, the Prince William County Supervisors approved the region’s first major slow growth plan. The Prince William plan set aside nearly half of the county land in a “rural crescent” in which future new home construction and other development will only be allowed on ten-acre plots. The result, predictably, is a major increase in land prices… [S]ix-figure income homebuyers – attracted by the large, secluded lots and gated developments – are moving to the county in droves. Many of these affluent new residents first sought assurances from the county that the land-use restrictions would continue to be enforced once they purchased their homes… Prince William newcomer Greg Gorham, a software developer, moved from another Virginia suburb because a builder constructed 20 townhouses on land next to him. “That was the thing I really didn’t want to have happen to me again,” said Gorham…

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (J. Terrence Farris,  “The Barriers to Using Urban Infill Development to Achieve Smart Growth”, p.23, 2001, PDF). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns). The density of most cities is 5 to 10 times that of their suburbs (Downs 1994)…

Perhaps Downs (1994) best describes the scale of infill development necessary to accommodate growth when he shows that

to raise overall density from 3,500 to 7,500 persons a square mile,[7] 47.1 percent of all housing land would have to be redeveloped with new housing at fifteen units per acre, 24.2 percent at twenty-five units an acre, or 14.0 percent at forty units an acre. Clearly, any substantial increase in the residential density of built-up areas that is to be achieved through redevelopment would require major clearance and rebuilding. This would be a major disruption to existing neighborhoods… It is hard to believe that residents where such upzoning is planned would permit it, considering the pressures they have exerted in the past…

Many suburbs today are built to accommodate between 1,000 and 3,000 people per square mile, typically based on markets and land cost (Downs 1994). While infill will continue in selected submarkets, smart growth advocates should aggressively pursue higher-density, quality development at the periphery rather than the typical low-density suburban sprawl of the past 50 years (Danielsen, Lang, and Fulton 1999). (p.26-27)

“Back to School for Planners”; “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School”; “The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools”
…the trend towards mega schools continues despite widespread agreement among researchers that the size of most U.S. schools is too large. A growing body of research has shown that “student achievement in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in large schools.” A higher percentage of students, across all socio-economic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities… Security improves and violence decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse…

Smaller, human-scaled institutions are easier to fit into existing neighborhoods. They are also easier for community residents to relate to than behemoth-sized institutions…

…District size also generally exerts a distinct influence (Bickel & Howley, 2000)…